Political transitions are times of potential. Things are up for grabs. A new world seems possible. Dramatic improvements in women’s electoral fortunes in African and Latin American countries where gender quotas were part of a transitional package show that “regime change” provides an opening for women’s activists to embed policy and institutions that support gender justice.
But transitions are also risky. As Joanna Mishtal documents in her important new book on the politics of morality in post-socialist Poland, conservatives can be activists too. There, the Catholic Church manoeuvred to entrench a moral regime such that the “governance of women’s bodies in postsocialist politics and gender [figure] as an essential constitutive feature of the Polish democratization process” (11). The upshot is that sexual and reproductive rights were severely restricted after socialism fell in 1989.
Mishtal starts by establishing how the church and its allies manipulated social policy in the new Poland in ways that were particularly damaging for women. The socialist state introduced abortion and contraception in the 1950s, well before these services became legally available in most liberal democracies. Consequently, people were dumbfounded when the new Polish parliament, under the presidency of Solidarity’s Lech Wałęsa, rushed to grant “the unborn” legal status. A systematic assault on abortion access followed, culminating in a 1993 law – the most restrictive in Europe, outside Ireland – that forbids abortion in all but three circumstances: danger to the woman’s life or health; severe incurable foetal abnormality; or first-trimester pregnancy resulting from a reported crime.
Compounding the situation, the state stopped subsidising contraceptives, replaced evidence-based sex education with “preparation for life in a family” courses based on Catholic ideology, and introduced legal provision for conscientious objection. The last was particularly pernicious. Individual doctors – sometimes out of fear more than conviction – may withhold lawful abortions and “artificial” contraception, advocating church-approved periodic abstinence instead. Worse, some managers bypass medical staff and invoke the conscience clause on an institution-wide level, leaving entire hospitals without abortion services.
The consequences can be harrowing. In 2000, multiple doctors warned Alicja Tysiąc that pregnancy could severely worsen her existing vision problems. But none would perform an abortion. Tysiąc, now legally blind and unable to work or live independently, was vindicated when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the state had breached her privacy rights. Likewise, the ECHR found that Poland had violated the European Convention on Human Rights provisions on privacy, liberty, and security as well as its prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment in the case of “Agata,” a 14-year-old rape victim. Agata was denied an abortion by a hospital director who explained that doctors in his facility would neither perform abortions nor provide referrals because “ethics is above the law” (96). Shockingly, this scenario was repeated several times before the government designated a hospital 500 kilometres away to perform the procedure. (Poland responded to the ECHR verdicts by creating a Patients’ Rights Ombudsman.)
Mishtal’s perspective on the church is refreshingly incisive: a strategising institution that played a long game “to establish itself as political actor not just in relation to the [postsocialist] state, but within the state structure itself” (34). Figured as an agent of liberation because of its pre-transition support for Solidarity, few suspected the church would roll back women’s rights. Mishtal quotes a prominent feminist and key informant explaining that the Polish left was “simply unprepared to respond to the upsurge of the right wing machinery and the wave of moralization that came with it . . . it came as a shock” (37).
Long-term participant observation and scores of interviews with reproductive rights activists, doctors, religious officials, and women who made reproductive decisions in the new Poland, give Mishtal an intimate appreciation of the difficulty of resisting an emboldened religious regime, the focus of Chapter 3. Before 1989, women enjoyed significant social entitlements: access to education; secure employment; childcare (including for disabled children); and help with domestic labour, including subsidised takeaway meals. Paradoxically, such...